Sasha Marcus, a wellness influencer on the brink of her big break, has been canceled. Enter Dyson, her childhood friend who’s a washed-up aspiring actor and has never been relevant enough to face that risk. In the meantime, hordes of white men have become a menace to society, as they spontaneously group up to perform activities as benevolent as rescue a kitty or as lethal as mass suicide. What are Sasha and Dyson to do? Why, start a cult, of course. Fame and global domination will surely follow.
This is the main plot of The Atmospherians, the bold, mischievous, and brilliant debut novel by Alex McElroy. Steeped within her unreliable and petty worldview, readers follow Sasha through the origins of The Atmosphere, a sham rehabilitation center for toxic men. When the “12 Terrible Men” descend on the rural New Jersey farm, Sasha and Dyson’s plan quickly goes off the rails. Just as threatening as the two of them gaining fame is the possibility of their scam being exposed, heightening the tension between the founders. Sasha is also tempted by a mysterious job offer that might actually give her a platform she can gloat over her former BFF, former BF, and former followers, who were all so quick to abandon her over a deadly social media faux pas.
While the foundations of the story might sound zany, The Athmospherians is a heady exploration of masculinity in crisis, the toxic nature of internet discourse, and the damaging pursuit of relevance over all else. There are moments when the plot borders on the delirious, but McElroy never loses the narrative thread or its foundations in the very real concerns of today. This is a book that almost demands to be read compulsively, so hard is it to fully relax in the new scenarios that come with each page. It is also side-splittingly funny and seductive in the way that a smooth-talking swindler or too-good-to-be-true social media starlet so often is.
One of the ways McElroy accomplishes this is through their precise use of language. The novel is infinitely quotable, providing an embarrassment of descriptive riches. A man has “a face like an electrical outlet.” Sasha’s privileged best friend is someone who “was moved, never impressed. Nothing on her ever itched.” The men who join The Atmosphere are people whose families and friends had discarded them “like fat trimmings cut from a steak.” The way they’re both listed as archetypes—the stubborn man, the righteous man, the accommodating man, and so on—and bestowed salient characteristics is like peering into the most nightmarish version of Tinder (which is to say, a very realistic form of Tinder). These insights are easily recognizable and therefore haunting. When reading about the dazed man-hordes that populate this novel’s world, it’s very easy to superimpose images from anti-mask protests and the storming of the Capitol.
Despite the hyperbolic nature of the situations that unfold, there is a very keen awareness of believable human behavior, especially that of our darkest impulses. Sasha is unabashed in her pursuit of personal glorification and small-time revenge, while Dyson is just as delusional and hungry for his own fame. Even when one sympathizes with their plight, their desires are rarely admirable. Sasha’s predilection for apologizing, for example, is not an act of contrition but a self-defense mechanism that many women know only too well.
The novel does call out the social media hacks, wellness hoaxes, and distortions of masculinity that society has been grappling with lately. But in its refusal to sugarcoat what drives the characters, it very effectively holds up an ugly mirror to the reader as well. Although McElroy probes and pokes fun at men’s most problematic behaviors, their protagonist is not a stand-in for a superior moral compass; Sasha is just as prone to dehumanizing the men as men have dehumanized her throughout her life. The most powerful message in The Atmospherians might be that when we turn others into monsters, we become monstrous ourselves.
With a set-up as delicious as The Atmospherians’, it’s a bit of a disappointment that there aren’t more depictions of the fraudulent workshops Sasha and Dyson concoct. It would have helped to both differentiate the men from each other and define what kind of transformations are taking place in the characters. Also, for anyone who suffers from emetophobia, the book should come with a massive warning sign. The presence of eating disorders as a way to emphasize both the characters’ shame and the absolute noxious environment of The Atmosphere can sometimes border on gratuitous. The ending invites many rereads without offering a solid conclusion to this wild journey. Sasha proves to be so unreliable—and all the characters so well-versed in the doublespeak of internet discourse, social justice-y vibes, and wellness slang—that it’s hard to trust a single interpretation of the text. This may make it more powerful to some, frustrating to others. Whatever it does, it will be hard to deny that this is a novel you’ll mull over long after you’ve read the last sentence. You might even memorize its most biting quips.
Author photo: Grace Rivera